Looking for the Gray Areas: A Little Fires Everywhere Review
Little Fires Everywhere is a popular novel by author Celeste Ng, now adapted into a series on Hulu, starring Kerry Washington and Reese Witherspoon. Set in the late 90’s, the story’s central characters are Mia Warren (Kerry Washington,) her daughter Pearl (Lexi Underwood), and the Richardsons: an affluent White family in the planned community of Shaker Heights, Ohio. Both Mia and Pearl - whether intentionally or not - deeply affect the Richardsons and their community. Both the book and the series begin with the Richardson house on fire, opening the reader/viewer up to the mystery of who set it and why? This is a story told in reverse - building up to the scene of a wealthy matriarch, outside in her bathrobe, watching as her home burns to the ground. How the series solves this mystery varies at times from its source material. Here is a look at some of the biggest changes from book to series, and how well they play out.
Mia is an artist, carrying her camera with her everywhere she goes. She searches for inspiration in each new city or town that she and Pearl move to. When they arrive in Shaker Heights, Ohio, she has promised Pearl more stability, something the girl strongly craves. They rent an apartment from Elena Richardson (Reese Witherspoon) and thus begins the connection between these two very different mothers and their children. Elena is an affluent mother of four, a part-time reporter for the local newspaper, and she rents out a duplex left to her by her parents to anyone she finds “interesting” or who she believes she is helping. She does not “need” the income from the rental. Therein lies the first major difference between Mia and Elena: wealth. Elena’s younger son, Moody, (a standout performance by Gavin Lewis) is instantly drawn to meeting someone new to Shaker Heights, and he befriends Pearl, bringing her into the Richardson household. The upbringing of the Richardson children and their daily life is something that Pearl envies, but Mia is wary of.
In Ng’s book, the people of Shaker Heights claim to “not see race.” Perhaps the most direct change from book to series is the decision to specify the race of its main characters, Mia and Pearl, as Black. This choice allows the series for more explicit instances of racism between its two mothers: Mia and Elena, as well as more casual racism between their children. When they are awakened by a Shaker Heights police officer for napping in their car, Mia warns Pearl to “put her hands on the dash.” The series uses race in particular as a means to explore preconceived notions about education, wealth, and even what makes someone a good parent. After Mia takes a job at a local Chinese restaurant to supplement her income, she also accepts Elena’s offer to help “manage her household” (aka cook and clean) to better keep an eye on Pearl. Hulu’s Mia always seems suspect of the Richardson family and what they stand for, but more wary of their potential influence on her daughter. While the book makes the offer of working at the Richardson home seem more plausible, the implications of race and servitude are made more nefariously on the show. Kerry Washington’s Mia does not seem like the type of person to accept a job making meatloaf for the Richardsons. She often portrays Mia like she is quietly seething, watching, judging. Her disdain for the Richardsons is more openly displayed than the book’s version of Mia, who seems more of a contemplative observer. In the series, Mia ultimately proclaims to Elena: “White women always want to be friends with their maid.” That’s right. They go there. By using race so explicitly in the series, it often becomes the defining lens - good or bad - for viewing our characters. It also becomes the driving force for drama and conflict on the Hulu series. And boy, there is a lot of drama.
By not specifying Mia and Pearl’s race in the novel, Ng focuses more on money and class as a way to differentiate her characters. Pearl is described in the book more as a shy bookworm who instantly bonds with the awkward Moody, but she aspires to be friends with his popular older sister, Lexie, and crushes on his handsome jock brother, Trip. In the series, the idea that Pearl is an object - both to possess and exploit by the Richardsons - becomes more prevalent. When Pearl eventually befriends Lexie, letting her buy her a dress for the upcoming Homecoming dance, Mia reacts angrily: “You’re letting some rich spoiled white girl turn you into her dress-up doll.” Pearl remains loyal to the idea that Lexie is her friend, but Mia’s warnings prove accurate. When Pearl attempts to be placed into a higher level math class, she is met with opposition from her school counselor until (White) Elena steps in to advocate for her. The counselor initially assumes that Pearl is from inner city Cleveland and that there is no way she is advanced enough to take the course. This example of “adversity overcome” is then hijacked by Lexie Richardson, who adapts the story into a tale of sexism for her own Yale college admissions essay. Despite realizing that there is fault with her actions, Lexie denies culpability to her Black boyfriend, Brian. Lexie later continues this behavior of exploiting Pearl by using her name to avoid recognition at a local clinic to have an abortion. She then asks to be brought to Pearl’s home afterwards to avoid her own mother. The situation allows for a conversation between Pearl and Mia to talk about having sex for the first time, and it shows a genuine tenderness between them that is rarely found between Elena and the Richardson children. I found the scenes between Kerry Washington and Lexi Underwood to be some of the most compelling of the series. Their relationship - in both the novel and the series - becomes more and more strained as the Warrens and the Richardsons have more and more of an effect on each other.
The other side of the mother/daughter coin is the extremely volatile relationship between Elena Richardson and her youngest daughter, Izzy (played by newcomer Megan Stott). A significant change from the book to the series is the introduction of Izzy’s sexuality as queer as a means of othering her from her peers and her own family. The series marks the 90’s setting in some very memorable ways: music, fashion, pop culture and mild homophobia. Ellen Degeneres coming out is a way of both marking the time period, but is also used to out Izzy. At the family dinner table, Trip (Jordan Elsass) chides Izzy with the intentional insult: “No wonder they call you Ellen,” to which a confused Elena asks, “Because she’s funny?” This question of Izzy’s sexuality adds an additional layer to the fear and awkwardness of starting high school, and her otherness from the rest of her more traditional straight cisgender family. Izzy has always been the “black sheep” of the family; she does not conform to social norms like Trip and Lexie, nor does she aspire to, as Pearl does. While Moody is less popular and more awkward than his older brother, the Hulu series does a much better job of fleshing out his character and making him more admirable than in the book. Some of this likeability is most definitely due to Gavin Lewis’ performance. In the series, Moody is much more vocal in defending Izzy for not caring about what others think, and his great disappointment with Pearl for wanting to spend more and more time with his older siblings is extremely palpable. On the show, Izzy briefly attempts to fit in to please her mother, but her efforts fall short. She realizes that she is being untrue to herself and ends up seeking solace with Mia, rather than her own mother. Izzy finds acceptance in Mia’s home, helping her make art. This concept of finding acceptance with a “chosen family” is much more familiar in queer coming out stories. The converse of this action is that Pearl eventually turns to Elena for comfort. To Mia, this is the greatest betrayal of all.
The struggle between the story’s two mothers - Elena and Mia - and the argument for what makes a parent a “good” parent, is often the driving force of both novel and series. The book, however, does a much better job of making sure the main characters are never totally right or wrong, good or bad. I missed the “gray area” that more consistently cropped up in Ng’s novel than in the Hulu series, making it harder to cast total judgement on its main characters. So often on the show, Elena Richardson’s character seems out and out awful. She is malicious and often up to no good. Where the show does attempt to show some humanity is during episode six, told entirely in flashbacks of young Mia and Elena. Here we are able to learn more about some of the events that lead to their current situations as parents. The use of flashbacks does a better job of really painting the struggles of both women during the most pivotal moments in their lives. It also made me much more sympathetic to Elena’s character in the series, than her portrayal as an adult did. While the book never delves into Elena’s backstory, the series gives her relationship with Izzy some perspective: Izzy’s pregnancy was not planned (and perhaps never wanted). It becomes more understandable that Elena most likely suffered from postpartum depression, second-guessing her choices of having children and a family over a career as a journalist. Besides this brief interlude, the Hulu series (and Witherspoon’s performance) does a much better job overall of painting Elena heavily into the role as the story’s villain.
Episode six also allows viewers to witness a young Mia enter into a romantic relationship with her mentor and art school professor, Pauline. She experiences happiness and acceptance right before she loses her younger brother and needs to return home. Forced to tell her parents the truth about her pregnancy - that she is a surrogate, carrying a baby for a couple paying for her art school - they ask her to not attend her brother’s funeral because of the possible speculation her pregnancy may incur. This is the defining incident that results in Mia deciding to keep the baby and flee, rather than return to school (and Pauline) in New York. After she gives birth, Mia tries to call Pauline, and learns that she has died of ovarian cancer while Mia has been away. Pauline, a successful artist, leaves Mia a photograph (of her pregnant with Pearl) that she could potentially sell if she ever needs the money. I really enjoyed episode six, both for the performances of the younger Elena (AnnaSophia Robb) and Mia (Tiffany Boone), and for the sympathy it created for them as adults. Ng’s novel always managed to create some empathy for its characters even when it found fault with them. The series has a harder time doing so. The dramatic back and forth on the show - between Mia and Pearl, Mia and Elena, Elena and Izzy - often left me rooting for no one in particular.
While it is not the immediate focal point, Ng’s novel does deal with race in the form of Mia’s new friend, Bebe Chow. Bebe is an illegal Chinese immigrant, battling to regain custody of her daughter, May Ling, now adopted by a wealthy American family in Shaker Heights, the McCulloughs. The custody battle between Bebe and the McCulloughs is much more prevalent throughout the entire story in the novel. It serves as a topic of gossip and discussion across Shaker Heights - from the adults at cocktail parties to the students at the local high school. You hear rumblings about this controversy long before we ever meet its main players. The custody battle is both a way for us to learn more about the people of Shaker Heights, as well as a catalyst for shaking up their preconceived thoughts and opinions on race, class, and what makes a “good parent.” Does this baby deserve to be with her birth mother, or with adoptive parents who can afford to provide her with “a better life”? When we meet Bebe Chow on the show, she is distraught, we see flashbacks of her leaving her starving baby outside a fire station in an act of desperation. She wishes to find and regain custody of May Ling, but she is also terrified of being deported if she goes to the police. Mia befriends Bebe at the Chinese restaurant where they both work. She learns through the Richardson family that their friends, the McCulloughs, are throwing an extravagant first birthday party for their adopted daughter, “Mirabelle” (an Asian baby who was found outside a fire station). When Bebe finds out where her daughter is, drama most definitely ensues. Mia ultimately sells her prized photograph from Pauline in order to help Bebe pay her legal fees against the McCulloughs.
The custody battle between Bebe Chow and the McCulloughs becomes the turning point in the series for Elena Richardson to truly become the show’s villain. Witherspoon’s depiction of Elena is one of an angry woman spiraling out of control, obsessed with Mia; she goes to great lengths to unearth the truth about this woman who has upended her “perfect” existence. Initially, Elena attempts to convince Bebe that her baby could have a better life with McCulloughs, and tries to buy her off, writing her a check for $10,000. When this tactic fails, she uses her skills as a reporter to figure out how a financially struggling Bebe suddenly has enough money to hire a lawyer. Izzy’s newfound relationship with Mia backfires when Izzy shows her parents the news coverage on the sale of Mia’s photograph. An enraged Elena attempts to hunt down more clues of Mia’s past, eventually locating Mia’s parents in Pennsylvania, where she learns the truth about Pearl. Mia has spent all of these years moving from town to town to avoid the couple who hired her as a surrogate. Elena/Witherspoon (channeling her Election character, Tracy Flick) blackmails Mia by threatening to tell Pearl this information if Mia testifies in support of Bebe.
While the novel is much more of a slow burn leading up to the Richardson home’s demise, the Hulu series frequently turns the drama factor up to eleven. Nowhere is this more apparent than during its final episode. The last episode is full of screaming matches, fistfights, and some stark changes from the novel’s original ending. While some of these changes seem to empower its characters, others left me feeling somewhat disappointed with their outcomes. The difference I felt the most conflicted about was the choice that Izzy did not in fact set the “little fires everywhere” as she did in the book. In Ng’s novel, Izzy wants to force her family to reset; she calmly and methodically decides to douse each of her sibling’s beds with a circle of gasoline and packs her belongings, hoping to chase after Mia and Pearl once they have left Shaker Heights. She sets the fires thinking that her home is entirely empty, not realizing that Elena is taking a nap upstairs; it is never an attempt to harm any member of her family. The series reduces Izzy’s actions to more of a hysterical response. When Izzy learns that Mia and Pearl have left, she immediately grabs the can of gasoline from the garage and tries to burn her old clothes and belongings before she is thwarted by her siblings. Her mother wakes up and joins the fray, her children bombarding her with questions. Where is Pearl? What has her mother done? An emotional Izzy is finally given the opportunity to come clean to her mother about her sexuality, and she staunchly exclaims her desire to have a mother more accepting like Mia, rather than Elena. This leads Elena to blurt out that she never really wanted Izzy to begin with, much to the horror of her other children. Doors are slammed, Izzy flees the house, and Lexie becomes the instigator for starting the fires, with Trip and Moody eventually joining in. The series, while building up the fortitude of the other Richardson children, robs Izzy of some of her agency. Her departure seems to be a direct result of her mother’s terrible outburst, rather than a planned act: the culmination of a slow boil of years of othering by her own family. In the end, the show’s Elena claims to have set the fires to protect Izzy (who is assumed to be to blame). Elena then frantically races to her rental house looking for Izzy, but she only finds a piece of Mia’s artwork there waiting for her.
While the bones of Ng’s story are always present, the Hulu series often takes the path of most destruction rather than one of thoughtful progression to make its points. Having the novel to compare to, I often felt the series chose drama over substance, making me miss the more complicated nuances of Ng’s original story and characters. This includes the show’s conclusion. After the fire destroys their home in the book, Elena suggests the Richardsons go stay at their rental house. The family (minus Izzy) then learns that Mia and Pearl vacated it the day before. When they arrive, a large envelope of Mia’s photos is there awaiting them. Without being labeled, each of the Richardsons internally knows which photo was left for them. Each photo is intensely intimate, personal to who it was made for, showing that Mia knew them better than they realized. The photos are not malicious in intent; they are hopeful, offering insight into each character, showing that there is more to them than meets the eye. The series’ ending chooses to show only Elena. Instead of a photograph, she is left pouring over a replica of Shaker Heights that Mia made with flour and water. In its center is a single birdcage with its door left open - one feather remaining, that belonged to Izzy - signifying her escape. It is a far less satisfying ending. In the novel, Mia’s intent was more thoughtful, more understanding; despite their differences, she wished for Elena to recognize and potentially escape her own cage. I prefer the book’s ending over the series. Elena is able to work through her own anger with Izzy, realizing that they are more alike than different, and that she has truly lost her. She resolves to set out looking for Izzy no matter how long it takes. While the book presents a more uncertain outcome, I find it to be a more hopeful one. The novel presents an ending for its characters where there is still the possibility of change, change for the better. It presents an ending that is far less black and white.
Besides watching TV and movies, Diana likes the great outdoors, drawing and reading comics, and just generally rocking out. She has a BA in English Literature and is an art school drop out. You can follow her on Instagram @dldimuro